From left: SoundPure owner Todd Atlas; Durham county commissioner Wendy Jacobs; Durham Hotel owner Daniel Robinson; Shoeboxed's Taylor Mingos; Jake Stauch of NeuroPlus; photographer/arts advocate Tim Walter; and Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson on The Durham Hotel's roof.
From left: SoundPure owner Todd Atlas; Durham county commissioner Wendy Jacobs; Durham Hotel owner Daniel Robinson; Shoeboxed's Taylor Mingos; Jake Stauch of NeuroPlus; photographer/arts advocate Tim Walter; and Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson on The Durham Hotel's roof.

Duke alumni help Durham rise

They have been involved in all aspects of the city's resurgence.
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December 14, 2016

The evening begins with a local beer on the rooftop of The Durham Hotel. It’s breezy outside, and not yet dark, with a gibbous moon just starting to rise. Customers emerge from the elevator and ritually peer over the edge, taking in the aerial view of a downtown that ten years ago would have looked abandoned.

Tonight it looks anything but. If you were to spend the next four hours within a half mile of this spot, here’s some of what you’d encounter: a garnish-your-own gin-and-tonic event in the hotel lobby, featuring spirits from a local distillery. A sidewalk pianist down the block, singing “New York State of Mind” to beer lovers at Criterion. Diners ordering from a world of menus: chicken and waffles at Dame’s, empanadas at Luna, ramen at Dashi, tapas at Mateo. A maître d’ at M Sushi, tucked away behind the new Google Fiber office, informing patrons of a two-hour wait. Sweaty runners converging at Fullsteam Brewery, where a food truck slings pizza slices and a high-end sock company shows off its merch.

Then, later, three skateboarders in CCB Plaza, near the anatomically correct statue of Major the Bull, sharing music videos on their phones. Activists at the music club The Pinhook, listening to an audio documentary about a prison labor strike. Live poetry in the basement bar Arcana. A red-carded futsal player getting in the referee’s face at The Cage at the American Tobacco Campus, a former cigarette factory.

And finally, at Beyù Caffè, a muscular man crooning a throaty cover of L.T.D.’s “Love Ballad” during open mic night. The customers at Beyù, a jazz club opened in 2009 by Dorian Bolden ’02, outnumber the available seats. They whistle, slowdance, angle for the best photos. With all the bodies in motion, it looks like an Archibald Motley painting, except that this tableau is racially integrated.

All this on an unexceptional Wednesday night.

For anyone who last visited Durham in the twentieth century—or even the early twenty-first—downtown might well be unrecognizable. People live there, some in pricey digs. There are incubators for technology start-ups and a twenty-four-hour art museum. The food is superb. There are elegant and dive-y watering holes. The Durham Performing Arts Center, owned by the city and funded in part by a $7.5 million donation from Duke, stages 200 shows a year, placing it fourth nationally in ticket sales. And a growing number of music festivals spotlight jazz, hip-hop, and electronica.

The buzz has been unceasing: Bon Appétit, Garden & Gun, Thrillist. Jetsetter, a website owned by TripAdvisor, lumped Durham with Tel Aviv and Rio de Janeiro in its list of sixteen “Places to See” in 2016. Zagat rated it among “America’s Next Hot Food Cities.” And The New York Times has lavished particular attention on the block—once “deserted after dark”—that Fullsteam shares with Motorco Music Hall and the barbecue restaurant The Pit.

All this activity has brought worries, too. Rising real-estate prices threaten to displace residents, many of them African American and Latino, from the neighborhoods surrounding downtown. Durham derives its energy from homegrown commercial and creative enterprises, but some can’t afford to stay in the center they helped build. “We have the revitalization happening,” says Durham county commissioner Wendy Jacobs ’83. “The challenge is getting to that tipping point where we start seeing franchises and big corporate businesses moving in, and then the rents going up. How do we keep what is special about Durham, continue to be an open and welcoming community, and make sure there’s a place for everybody downtown?”

From the early days of the renaissance, Duke has been a key player. It has leased more than a million square feet of downtown office space, and that number will reach 1.5 million by 2018. More than 3,500 Duke employees work downtown, which means more traffic for restaurants and other businesses. Scott Selig, associate vice president for real estate, says the university multiplies its impact by insisting that builders lock in additional tenants before Duke signs its lease.

Beyond the institutional investment, alumni have been involved in all aspects of downtown’s resurgence: developing real estate, launching start-ups, nurturing art, and working to prevent an overheated city from singeing those at its margins.

The builders

On one wall of the Durham office of Greg Hills’ Austin Lawrence Partners, eleven poster-sized renderings depict the owner’s plans for a denser and livelier downtown.

The keystone is One City Center, a planned twenty-seven-story tower that currently exists as a canyon surrounded by chain link and orange-and-white plastic traffic barriers. When the building opens in 2018, it will reshape not just downtown’s skyline but also its demographic profile. Along with office space (much of it leased by Duke), storefronts, and rental apartments, it will house thirty condominiums, some selling for more than $1 million.

Next door, Hills ’76 also is renovating the tumbledown Jack Tar Motel into a hotel that promises guest-room amenities like color therapy and dawn-simulation lighting. (Durhamites know the building because of former owner Ronnie Sturdivant’s belief that Durham’s ills could be solved if media entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey just noticed the city. “We want Oprah!!! Email Oprah,” Sturdivant posted in giant letters in the windows.) The new Unscripted Hotel will sport turquoise façade panels in keeping with its 1960s vintage. “It’ll be fun to add color to the palette of downtown,” Hills says.

Hills, who works alongside his wife, Jane, says he wants to add more than color. He envisions the two buildings collectively drawing people to the once-barren CCB Plaza, at the very center of the business district. The plaza, with its bronze bull statue, has become a livelier place since the arrival of The Parlour, an ice-cream shop, in 2013. But Hills believes it has considerably more potential.

“We’d really like to activate the square,” he says. Once restaurants in the hotel begin outdoor table service, “it’s going to be like what Motorco and Fullsteam and The Pit have all done: There’s that energy by having them all together that creates this vibe.”

Many of the engineers of downtown’s comeback have been builders: people who have erected new structures or, more satisfyingly, restored old ones, often with local government incentives. “Durham is lucky that maybe we weren’t prosperous enough to knock down our old buildings,” says Durham city council member Steve Schewel ’73, Ph.D. ’82, who is also a visiting assistant professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy.

The first big sign of a downtown comeback was the 2004 opening of the American Tobacco Campus, which Capitol Broadcasting president Jim Goodmon converted from a shuttered Lucky Strike factory into a mixed-use complex bisected by an artificial river. Duke was an early major tenant, as it also will be when the vacant Chesterfield cigarette factory reopens in 2017 as a life-science research center.

The majority owner of The Durham Hotel is a group of six friends, including Daniel Robinson ’98 and four other Duke graduates. In 2015, they opened the hotel in a mid-century modern bank building with a façade that suggests a combination bowling alley and spaceship. “Durham’s not happening in a vacuum,” says Robinson. “It’s happening in Savannah. It’s happening in Chattanooga. It’s happening in Richmond. It’s happening in all these similarly sized communities with great building stock. Not to take away from the independence or creativity of any of us here in Durham, but these risks are made easier when we can see [similar successes] in all of these tertiary markets.”

Robinson, in turn, rents office space in the former Scott & Roberts dry cleaners, a 1940s Streamline Moderne building that Todd Atlas ’01, J.D. ’08, M.B.A. ’08 recently renovated. “At the beginning, it was the scrappier bootstrapper types that were making downtown interesting,” says Atlas, who also owns the downtown music company SoundPure. “Fast forward, as the development increased in magnitude, that created this possibility for larger, more traditional finance- oriented thinkers to make really big projects happen.”

The biggest new impact on the center of downtown will likely come from Hills, a lanky, measured man with gray swept-back hair. The reason is scale: In addition to the tower and the hotel, both large projects, he plans to replace the SouthBank building on Main Street, with a mixeduse complex that might include a 25,000-square-foot grocery.

Ironically, Hills will be shaping a district he rarely visited as an undergraduate. “Back in the ’70s, Duke students had very little interaction with Durham,” he says. “You pretty much stayed on campus. Or if you left campus, you were going to Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. It was a sad situation, but Durham was in its demise.”

After graduating, Hills left town to build his career elsewhere. He and Jane developed real estate in California, Colorado, and Ohio, focusing initially on buying “distressed assets” like shopping centers from lenders and fixing them up. “It started off, with me, as more of a financial transaction,” he says. “But I found myself really enjoying how to take something that’s old and tired, underutilized, and turn it into something better.”

It wasn’t until their son Austin became a Duke freshman in 2008 that the couple visited Durham together. Advised to check out downtown, Hills was impressed by all the redevelopment, including American Tobacco. Elsewhere, though, he says he noticed “burned-out buildings, vacated buildings, dilapidated buildings.”

His wife, Hills says, supplied the vision. “You’d walk around the core, and you’d see all this sadness. But Jane is really good at seeing past that—at not seeing the burned out but seeing the possible.”

“I think I’m just an old soul,” she interjects. “I see it finished. I see the people. I see downtown already done.”

Once they decided to invest in Durham, he says, “it was fairly quick that we felt there was a niche for this upscale urban vertical living. There’s a Baby Boomer demographic—Jane and I are that type—that wants to go to restaurants, wants to go to shows. Then the millennial group: They want to walk; they want to work-live-play in an urban environment. Durham isn’t really any different from the national trends.”

Lest Hills, who has never built a tower before, sound like an outsider trying to place his generic stamp on a place, he says he recognizes the city’s uniqueness. “We understand that Durham is very creative,” he says. “They want to feel interesting and not homogenized. Us developers, we’re going to try very hard to fit within that fabric.”

The creatives

Tim Walter ’86 looks down from the second-story window above The Pinhook into the excavation that will become Hills’ high-rise. A devilish smile forms on his bearded face. “Don’t you love the fact that The Pinhook is right here, and this twenty-seven-story glass skyscraper is going up across the street?” he asks. “It’s hysterical.” Walter notes that One City Center’s map of nearby bars and restaurants omits the LGBT-friendly, dog-friendly, punk-friendly, unflinchingly political music club across the street. “I guess they don’t consider us a neighborhood amenity,” he says.

In 2014, Walter became the majority owner of the building that houses The Pinhook. This wasn’t a random deal: He bought the building to ensure that the alternative-music venue doesn’t succumb to downtown’s hot real-estate market.

Walter, a photographer and Durham native, is spearheading two projects designed to keep artists in the city’s core. Along with the Pinhook building, he has bought the former Durham Fruit and Produce Co., a warehouse and garage on the eastern edge of downtown. He plans to renovate it into work space for photographers, filmmakers, and modern dancers, along with a black-box theater.

“I figure that I’m helping to underwrite the gritty, weird art scene in Durham that will help keep some flavor in the city,” he says. “This is my investment in the Durham that I want to live in.”

For artists, much of downtown’s appeal was its affordability. In 1979, Dan Ellison ’77 rented an entire floor above what is now the Cupcake Bar for $25. He only needed a small portion for his photography darkroom, so he and some Duke friends turned the rest into a cooperative art gallery. In 1996, Ellison (by then a lawyer) bought and renovated another building, which he named Durham Arts Place and carved into inexpensive artist studios. His tenants formed the backbone of the city’s early downtown culture crawls.

Artists took advantage of raw, empty spaces. The unfinished ground floor of the Baldwin Building (which later became the restaurant Revolution) was used in 2006 for poetry readings. The same year, art patrons Frank Konhaus ’80 and Ellen Cassilly invited French photographer and installation artist Georges Rousse to create giant trompe l’oeil compositions in vacant structures like the Chesterfield factory, the Baldwin Building, and the future Google Fiber office. Two hundred people volunteered to help Rousse. Thousands stood in lines to view his work.

By the time Walter moved home in 2013 to care for his parents— after working in business, philanthropy, and community economic development, mostly in Washington, D.C.—the days of cheap downtown spaces were over. But the arts scene was flourishing in ways that delighted him. It was “hip and queer,” he recalls, and collaborative rather than competitive. Looking for his place in this scene, Walter often found himself unwinding from hospital visits on The Pinhook’s dance floor or at its bar. “The Pinhook was a refuge for me,” he says, “during a time when my family life was so fraught.”

Walter realized, too, that “a gentrifying downtown” could threaten that refuge and its owner, Kym Register. “Kym had staked out this spot eight years ago, when nothing was down in this block,” he says. “Now she was in danger of being shoved out.” Investing in real estate to preserve a cherished cultural institution seemed like a natural outgrowth of his community- development and philanthropy work, so he cashed in some stocks and bought the building with Register and another partner.

The same year, 2014, Walter brought the Durham Fruit and Produce Co., which a friend nicknamed The Fruit. He initially envisioned a million-dollar conversion into offices (plus a photo studio for himself), which would have generated $200,000 a year in rents. In the interim, he let artists use the raw space. Choreographer Nicola Bullock produced Undone, which explored racism through dance and spoken text. Duke Performances premiered Corduroy Roads, guitarist William Tyler’s multimedia reflection on the Civil War’s legacy.

“When the artists came in, they looked at the space and said, ‘Let’s make this art space,’ ” Walter recalls. Embracing their suggestion, he scaled back his renovation plans and opted for an unpolished “Berlin or Bushwick, Brooklyn, aesthetic.” Without offices, Walter would forfeit much of the rental income, but that was fine: He could wait until retirement and then profit from the building’s sale. (In a reprise of 2006, last October the French artist Rousse used The Fruit to create a tenth-anniversary installation.)

Walter says some of his Duke classmates, who work in real estate, have urged him to sell The Fruit and reap the immediate benefits of downtown’s boom. But he prefers “patient capital” and says he’s content to hold the building as long as his earnings keep pace with the stock market. “Modest expectations help create community,” he says. “Rather than seeing my savings rise through stock in GE, I put it in play in Durham.”

The upstarts

Jake Stauch wraps a wireless black headset around his forehead and loads his tablet. His long cusp-of-adulthood face hovers between playfulness and gravitas. “The object is to make this dragon fly as fast as you can,” he says. “The more you focus, the faster the dragon flies. You need to keep your body still, your face relaxed. You need to tap on these things on the screen that are designed to distract you. And then you have different dragons that fly at you, these enemies.” He turns to the screen and tries to shoot down the purple “bad guy” dragons, but he misses a cue and triggers an on-screen collision. Later, when he looks away, a flashing message reminds him to concentrate.

Stauch, who entered Duke with the Class of ’13, is sitting in the office of NeuroPlus, one of the companies he has founded since leaving the university. The office is in the basement of the American Tobacco Campus, within a start-up incubator called American Underground. The dragon game, which NeuroPlus produces and markets, is designed to teach focus, relaxation, and self-control—training that Stauch says appeals to families of kids with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Stauch’s headset measures both brain waves and facial-muscle activity. It can detect, for example, if he’s feeling too tense.

NeuroPlus is part of a start-up scene that has helped repopulate downtown with young entrepreneurs, who in turn have created demand for apartments, restaurants, and nightlife. Many of the start-ups begin at American Underground, which houses 250 companies at three downtown locations. (Duke is a founding partner.) Designated a Google for Entrepreneurs tech hub, it provides furnished offices and shared amenities like conference rooms and coffee stations. It has a youthful vibe, with bunk beds for chilling, video games like Donkey Kong Junior, and a yellow playground chute connecting two floors of its Main Street site.

Today’s young adults—who grew up without their parents’ and grandparents’ promise of stable careers with large employers—have been described alternately as the most entrepreneurial generation, and the least, in recent history. Despite the conflicting data, Durham clearly has attracted a concentration of young, civic-minded innovators. “Lots of founders in Durham are more connected to the city than you see in the Bay Area or New York,” says Taylor Mingos B.S.E. ’07, CEO of Shoeboxed, a company that digitizes receipts and other paper clutter. “People here care about gentrification; there are entrepreneurs working to address that problem. People here in the startup community are very socially conscious.”

And the collaborative spirit that Tim Walter discovered among Durham’s artists extends to businesses, too. When Mingos founded Shoeboxed shortly after graduating, “anybody was willing to grab coffee,” he says. “Anybody was willing to open up their entire contact network to us. People wanted to make not just their own company better but the scene better. It felt like—and still, to a large extent, feels like—a team effort.”

That “team” includes (among others) Ivonna Dumanyan B.S.E. ’16 and Gabrielle Levac ’14, whose company Biometrix produces and sells wearable sensors for athletes recovering from injuries; Brandon Magsamen M.B.A. ’14, whose CrowdTunes app allows bar-and-restaurant patrons to select the music they hear (for a price); and Tatiana Birgisson ’12, founder of the energy-drink company Mati. Birgisson and Stauch are engaged, and their companies share an office.

Stauch’s company NeuroPlus grew out of his campus job cleaning EEG machines at a Duke lab. Back then, he was feeling unsure about his future, but the job sparked an interest in neuroscience. Around the same time, he joined InCube (now The Cube), a residential program at Duke for student-entrepreneurs. Fusing his interests in brain science and business, Stauch came up with the idea for NeuroSpire, a company that would use brain scans to test advertising. “It was cool to be surrounded by people who were interested in starting companies—and doing it right now,” he says.

Stauch decided to take off a semester after his junior year. He would launch his company and “see what happens.” Within a few months, he had landed a major client and was bringing in significant revenue. He never returned to finish the degree.

“But we weren’t excited about testing ads,” Stauch says of himself and his colleagues. The team wanted to use the technology more meaningfully.

Some clients suggested the next step. “Every single time I was in a pitch, someone said, ‘Oh, put that on my kid while they’re doing their homework.’ It was said half-jokingly, but there was this earnest feeling from parents. We kept hearing stories of kids with attention problems, and the parents didn’t know how to help. We saw that desperation and thought, ‘Well, hey, we’ve built most of the technology to address this.’ ” Now NeuroPlus, rather than NeuroSpire, takes up most of his professional energy.

Stauch opened his businesses in downtown Durham by default. His girlfriend, social networks, and alma mater were all nearby. Costs were relatively low. Now that he’s here, though, he says it feels like the right place to stay.

“There’s so much optimism,” he says. “It’s not a secret anymore that this area is growing. You just assume that new restaurants are going to pop up. New bars are going to pop up. Every single thing is going to get better.”

The equalizers

Jillian Johnson ’03 lives in Morehead Hill, less than a mile’s walk from downtown. She makes that walk often and with pleasure. “I was so excited when M Sushi opened,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is going to be the death of me. Sushi downtown? I’m done.’ ”

Johnson sits on Durham City Council, an unobstructed perch for seeing the changes downtown. “I love the fact that we are on the national food-scene map,” she says. “I love the tech-innovation stuff, because I’m a nerd. I really like Durham Central Park, and the farmers’ market, and the food-truck rodeos, and the outdoor music and movies. Having a real urban core that encourages density and walkability—I think that’s great.”

Then comes the caveat: “We need to have an exciting downtown. It needs to be accessible to everyone, and it’s not.”

Johnson’s conviction—that Durham’s growing popularity requires a redoubled commitment to racial and economic justice— has informed much of her work since graduating from Duke. More than a decade of activism culminated in her successful 2015 council campaign, during which she warned of “two separate and unequal Durhams.”

 

The history of Durham’s social inequality is long. “A hundred years ago, we were in our Gilded Age,” says Steve Schewel, Johnson’s colleague on City Council (and former professor). “We had [industrialist and university founder] James B. Duke, and we had the tobacco and textile industries. They were unionized, so eventually they came to have very good wages. Those factories created a lot of wealth.”

The 1970s and ’80s were unkind to the central city. The Durham Freeway leveled Hayti, a thriving African-American business district. Malls and subdivisions enabled a decampment to suburbia. And the 1987 shuttering of American Tobacco’s Lucky Strike factory crowned a series of mill closures. “We had, in Durham, a hollowing out of the middle class,” Schewel says. “That middle class was composed, in good part, of people with good blue-collar factory jobs.”

According to U.S. Census data, Durham now has a 20 percent poverty rate, which rises to 26 percent for children. Many of the city’s least affluent families have lived within walking distance of downtown, in neighborhoods like Cleveland-Holloway, Southside, Burch Avenue, and the West End. Now, with downtown’s comeback, those are hot neighborhoods with housing prices to match. “It’s clearly displacing people,” says Johnson, who notes that when poorer residents are pushed toward the city’s periphery, they lose “access to the resources that downtown is now providing.”

Moreover, downtown has seen an exodus of black-owned retail businesses—most famously Blue Coffee Café, which can no longer afford its space in the future Unscripted Hotel.

Durhamites are particularly sensitive to these issues. The city has a strong social-justice community: overlapping circles of policymakers, service providers, and street protesters. Some are Duke alumni who got their first exposure to city neighborhoods during their student days. For example, county commissioner Jacobs volunteered in tutoring and recreational programs in Southside and the West End during the 1980s and saw extreme poverty during visits to children’s homes. (Once she stepped out a back door and broke her ankle; the house was missing its back steps.) Jacobs can chart a direct path between her civic involvement as an undergraduate and her eventual run for office.

Johnson—a Virginia native with enormous eyes, strong brows, and a focused energy that suggests a constant state of alert—did not develop a deep connection with Durham during her student years. But she did hone her activist skills, working against farm- and sweatshop-labor abuse and against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. After graduating, she spent six months teaching in New Mexico but then came back east. “I hadn’t realized that Durham was home until I left,” she says. “It felt like a place where there was a lot of community engagement, and I wanted somewhere that I could raise kids in diverse neighborhoods.”

Johnson joined local organizing efforts like Hip Hop Against Racist War and started doing nonprofit administrative work. She bought the Morehead Hill house and had two children. And she took notice of the changes occurring around her. “When I moved here, downtown was not something that anyone thought about,” she says. “Now people want to be able to walk and bike downtown.” Part of the shift has been racial: Downtown and the surrounding districts are whiter than a decade ago. “It’s the reversal of white flight,” says Johnson, who is African American. “Because of the power of white privilege, wherever white people want to live, they’re able to come and take that space.”

On City Council, Johnson is working with her colleagues on policy solutions, such as public-private partnerships to build affordable housing on government-owned land downtown. She’s also advocating for binding agreements that would predicate economic-development incentive funds on “community benefits” like open space, local hiring, and subcontracting to minority- and women-owned businesses.

Working from the inside is hard. The machinery of government is slow. “I feel like my head’s going to explode, because I have twenty-five ideas, and I don’t know how much time it would take to put all these ideas in place,” she says. What’s more, state laws limit how much city officials can do. But Johnson says it remains a priority of hers to ensure that downtown’s prosperity benefits everyone.

“Building up downtown can’t be part of building this narrative around two Durhams,” she says. “It has to be about bringing everyone downtown, and bringing those Durhams together.”

Yeoman is a journalist based in Durham. His recent work has been published in Audubon, The American Prospect, and Popular Science.